Starting your own seeds is simple if you want it be.If you’re like many gardeners, you have never tried growing your own
plants from seed. Or, if you have tried, maybe your seedlings didn’t
resemble those you see at the garden center each spring, and you’re
wondering how you can do better.
For seed-starting success, follow this simple plan.
1. Choose a fine medium.
For healthy seedlings, you’ve got to give them a loose, well-drained medium (seed-starting mix) composed of very fine particles. You can buy a seed-starting mix at your local garden center—or make your own. Don’t use potting soil—often, it’s too rich and doesn’t drain well enough for seedlings.
2. Assemble your containers.
Many gardeners start their seeds in leftover plastic “six packs” from
the garden center, empty milk cartons, or Styrofoam cups. If you don’t
have containers on hand, you can buy plastic “cell packs,” individual
plastic pots, or sphagnum peat pots. Or make your own pots from
newspaper. Whatever you use, be sure your containers drain
well (usually through holes in the bottoms of the containers).
Set the pots inside a tray so that you can water your seedlings from
the bottom (by adding water to the tray) rather than disturbing them by
watering from the top. You can buy seed-starting trays at garden centers
and many hardware stores.
3. Start your seeds!
Moisten your seed-starting mix before you plant your seeds. If
you water after you plant the seeds, they can easily float to the edges
of the container—not where you want them to be. To moisten the mix,
simply pour some into a bucket, add warm water, and stir. After about 8
hours (or when the mix has absorbed the water), fill your containers
with the moistened mix.
Plant at least two or three seeds per container. The
seed packet usually tells you how deep to plant, but a good rule of
thumb is three times as deep as the seeds’ smallest diameter. (Some
flower seeds require light to sprout—if that’s the case, simply lay the
seeds on the surface of the mix, then tamp them in gently with your
After you’ve planted your seeds, cover the tray loosely with plastic
to create a humid environment. At 65° to 70°F, your seeds should sprout
just fine without any supplementary heat. If the room temperature is
cooler than that, you can keep the seeds warm by setting the tray on top
of a heating mat made specifically for starting seeds.
Tomato, zucchini, and pumpkin seeds should push their sprouts through
the surface of the mix in a few days. Peppers sprout in about a week.
And some seeds, such as parsley, can take as long as 3 weeks to sprout, so be patient.
4. Keep the lights bright.
Check your trays daily. As soon as you see sprouts, remove the plastic
covers and immediately pop the trays beneath lights. You can invest in
grow lights (which provide both “warm” and “cool” light), but many
gardeners have good results with standard 4-foot-long fluorescent shop
lights. Set your seedlings as close to the light as possible—2 or 3
inches away is about right. When seedlings don’t get enough light, they
grow long, weak stems. As the seedlings grow, raise the lights to
maintain the proper distance.
5. Feed and water.
Your seedlings will need a steady supply of water, but the soil
shouldn’t be constantly wet. The best method is to keep the containers
inside a tray, water from the bottom, and allow the soil inside the
containers to “wick up” the water.
If your growing medium contains only vermiculite and peat (as many
seed-starting mixes do), you’ll also need to feed your seedlings. When
the seedlings get their first “true” leaves (not the tiny ones that
first appear, but the two that follow), mix up a fish emulsion solution
one-quarter to one-half the recommended strength and add it to the
seedlings’ water every other week. As the plants grow bigger, gradually
increase the strength of the mixture.
6. Keep the air moving.
Your seedlings need to be big and strong by the time you move them from
their cushy indoor surroundings to the harsh realities of the outside
world. You can help them grow sturdy, stocky stems with a small fan. As
soon as you see those first true leaves, set the fan to blow lightly but
steadily on the seedlings, all day long. The air circulation also will
minimize their chance of fungal disease while they’re crowded together
7. Give them space.
Those well-watered, well-fed, and well-fanned seedlings will soon need
more root space. Shortly after the second set of true leaves appears,
take a deep breath and thin your seedlings to one per pot. Use small
scissors to clip off the weaker plants at the soil line, leaving only
the stockiest plant.
Next, carefully “pot up” the survivors into larger, 3-or 4-inch pots.
Squeeze the sides of the smaller containers all around, turn them
upside down, and the plants should come out easily—soil and all.
Immediately set them into the larger containers and fill with a mixture
of 3 parts potting soil and 1 part your own screened compost.
(If you started your seeds in peat pots or homemade newspaper pots, you can plant both the seedling and its pot in the larger container; the pot eventually will decompose.)
Plant tomatoes deep in the new container to encourage them to develop
a larger root system to support these often top-heavy plants. With most
other plants, the soil level in the new pot should be about the same as
in the smaller container. After you’ve finished repotting, water the
plants well and set them back under the lights.
About a week or two before you plan to transplant your seedlings
to the garden, begin taking them outdoors to a protected place, such as
inside a coldframe or near a wall, for increasing lengths of time on
mild days. This will help them adjust to the conditions outside—a
process known as hardening off. Start with just a couple of hours each day, work up to a full day, and then leave them out overnight.
When you finally transplant the seedlings to the garden, be careful
not to disturb their roots. Gently pop them out of their containers,
keeping as much soil attached to their roots as possible. Again, plant
tomatoes deeply, but set other plants at about the same depth as they
were in their pots (or just slightly deeper).
9. Seal it with a K.I.S.S.
Most important, relax! Don’t worry if you forget to do something or
don’t follow all the “rules.” Except for hardening off, all of these
rules are flexible. Before long, you will learn what works best for
you—and will have a few secrets of your own to share with fellow seed